By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Dani (Florence Pugh) is in a bad place. What sets her over the edge is her sister’s horrifying suicide–she strapped a hose connected to her car’s exhaust to her mouth, killing her parents in the process. Her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) has grown distant and emotionally abusive, and fails to support her. He was planning on breaking up with Dani, but can’t bring himself to do it. He ends up bringing her along with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to a Swedish festival in Pelle’s home village in Halsingland. Every year, the village hosts a grand ceremony of dancing, flowers, and festivities. This year marks an important version of the festival that only occurs once every 90 years, the end of a “cycle.”
When they arrive at the village, they are welcomed with open arms. Josh is excited to study the village for his anthropology thesis, Christian is searching for his own subject, and Mark is excited to get with some Swedish women. The group finds that the practices of the community are somewhat odd, but they chalk it up to the traditions of a centuries-old village with sacred traditions. These traditions become increasingly more frightening. Dani is initially horrified, but begins to become more enamored with the practices of the village as she finds a community that finally seems to accept and support her.
Ari Aster has an uncanny ability to portray grief. Just as in Hereditary with Toni Collette, Florence Pugh gives such an intense emotional performance in mourning the loss of her family, you almost want to leave the room from the pure discomfort and give her some privacy. The camera seems to have the same idea, slowly zooming forward over her wailing into Christian’s arms into one of the last times a night sky will be seen in the film, drifting away from them and into the snowy opening credits set to Bobby Krlic’s genuinely upsetting score (which in its entirety is one of the year’s best):
The way the film portrays the deteriorating, toxic, irredeemable relationship between Christian and Dani makes it unsurprising to hear that Aster drew from his own breakup experience in penning the film. There’s an incredibly painful moment in the opening scene in which Dani leaves a message at her house, where her sister and parents are, in response to a clear suicide note. Unable to reach them, she calls Christian, in a desperate attempt to distract herself. In the uncomfortable conversation that follows, Aster keeps the camera close on Pugh’s face as she runs through a powerful series of emotions, searching for empathy from Christian as he coldly accuses her of enabling her sister. It’s raw stuff, and Pugh’s performance is absolutely worthy of an Oscar nomination at the very least.
Similar to last year’s Suspiria remake, Midsommar unfolds like a slow nightmare. The way the camera explores the death of Dani’s sister–following the hose from the exhaust pipe up the stairs to where she’s literally duct-taped the hose to her mouth–is immediately horrifying and sickening. It indicates the absolute intent she had to take her own life, and is a powerful inciting moment for the plot. Before long, there is a distinct sense that something is very wrong at the village and something very bad is going to happen. Ari Aster has several scenes in which he holds a shot or extends a scene for several seconds longer than the average film. In both the moments preceding something grisly, or during an emotional scene, the horror is stretched out to effectively uncomfortable moments.
Unlike that film, there’s a bit of dissonance with the cult—it’s more visible in the Director’s Cut, but there are times when this cult seems benign and even positive, especially when they interact with Dani. They clearly enjoy strong fellowship with one another, and it’s strongly implied that Dani, who’s seen nothing but darkness in the last year, is drawn to them. She may have found her people, despite their overall sinister vibes towards their male guests. There’s an element of mystery and intrigue to the group’s culture, and the production goes a long way to adding flavor to the tension. For every unsettling or nasty thing that happens (at least in the first half), it can be somewhat rationalized by the long-standing traditions of the community.
The visuals and sound design of Midsommer slowly ease you into a sense of simultaneous relaxation and suspicion. It’s unique in that it is filmed in broad daylight, ostensibly using mostly natural light sources. The most common source of fear in cinema is darkness, and when Midsommar takes away the fear of the dark, it allows Aster to get significantly more creative with how he builds tension.
All the stops come out once the drugs come out. Whatever it is the characters are imbibing, their psychedelic experience translates into the actual picture. Props and backgrounds being to subtly shift and pulsate, and there is at least one shot in which the background treeline vaguely takes the shape of Dani’s trauma. It’s immersive, disarming, and perfectly calibrated.
Midsommar is a film that you simply fall into, letting its sensory richness completely engulf you. Not unlike an actual psychedelic experience, it’s a long, strange trip that works best by just letting go and seeing what happens. It rewards subsequent viewings, to continue to unpack the visual clues, dialogue callbacks, and tiny character moments that make more sense in retrospect.
Ari Aster is now three for three on his two feature films and original short, reaching deep into his own experiences to draw authentic cinematic horror from trauma. He doesn’t employ jump scares, and even his supernatural or surreal horror elements are frills to the raw emotional suffering of his human characters. This isn’t a funhouse of scares to recount over the water cooler–it’s a powerful, defeating emotional journey, and it is absolutely beautiful and horrifying.
Midsommar (2019) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone else takes a drink, but if they do the inhale-exhale thing you have to do it too.
Take a Drink: whenever you see something in the shifting trees and props.
Do a Shot: for every death.
Take a Drink: every time Christian does something douche-y.